At Camerimage in November, I eavesdropped on a fascinating conversation between cinematographer-turned-director Phil Abraham and Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC. They were trading stories about the early days of their respective careers in New York. Sal surprised me by saying that he almost became a police officer. “Growing up, I was always fascinated with police and detective stories and the curiosity aspect of solving crimes,” Sal told me later. “After I quit college, I was working for an electrical contractor, not quite knowing what I wanted to do with myself, and the New York City Police exam came up. I took the exam, thinking I’d go with the police force and work my way up to detective.”
Sal scored a 95 on the test and was given a waitlist number higher than 3,000, the number of recruits accepted into the police academy at a time. He met a Puerto Rican youth who had scored a 75 and was given a much lower waitlist number. “I had no idea what affirmative action was until it affected me,” he says. “My parents came to the U.S. from Italy, and I grew up in a very tight, working-class, immigrant family that believed in never taking anything from the system. You always worked hard for what you wanted. I had done everything I was supposed to do. So that experience was discouraging.”
Sal had always loved photography, but his family’s expectation was that he would go to college or learn a trade. Making a living as an artist was not in the cards. One day he visited a distant relative who was shooting tabletop, and he was immediately fascinated. Soon he was working as a production assistant. “My family thought I was crazy to quit my good job, where I had just gotten a raise and a promotion, to clean up garbage and get coffee!”
He bought a used camera and began taking photos, developing them in a lab on 20th Street that could be rented by the hour. “I wanted to get into the camera department, but New York was very tough in the ‘80s,” recalls Sal. “I met a camera assistant named Paul Gaffney on a commercial, and he was working for a cinematographer named Jack Donnelly, who allowed me to help out with moving cases.” One day Gaffney told Sal to move cases from one room to another, and then later asked him to move them all back. At the end of the day, he told Sal, “I can see you’re serious. Why don’t you come with me to prep, and I’ll teach you cameras.”
Fast-forward to today. Sal says attitudes about learning filmmaking have changed. “I think our society right now is moving in a bad direction. There’s so much entitlement. I promote from within, and I really believe in the apprenticeship program. That’s how I learned, and I think that’s a great way to learn. You not only learn about photography, you also learn about communication, which is a really key factor in what we do — communication between the crew and the director, dealing with the production and budgets. By apprenticing, you learn from your mentor about all the struggles he’s going through, as opposed to just being put in the middle of it.
“Benn Martenson started out as an intern on The Missing in 2003, and he moved his way up through the camera department with me, and now he’s a cinematographer. On Concussion I brought him in to shoot second unit. I’m very proud of him, and I think that kind of commitment is something that’s often missing from this business. I meet these kids on commercial sets, and one of them will say, ‘Hey, I want to get in the camera department.’ So I introduce him to my crew, my crew shows him a few things, and by midday he’s asking to operate the camera. It doesn’t work that way. By the end of the day, he’s sitting on the camera truck — he’s not interested anymore.
“It’s great that you can get a digital camera, shoot something nice for your reel and edit it on your computer, but how do you learn how to run a crew? How do you know how to deal with the production? How do you know how to shoot a three-page scene while the weather’s changing on you? You can’t come back tomorrow with your friends; you don’t have that luxury. How do you learn to deal with that?
“I think the craft is disappearing, and it’s sad,” he says. “Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond, two famous cinematographers, just passed in the last few weeks. I never worked with either of them, but they were both so inspiring and thought-provoking for me. I learned so much from just watching their work. They were masters, and I think a lot of young people are going to have no idea who they were or what it meant to shoot, say, The Deer Hunter — the challenge of getting that look while dealing with what they dealt with, in the jungle with 5 stops of latitude, and color timing with printer lights.
“A painter can’t just start painting and be a master. You have to learn about the pigment and how to mix colors, and how to make charcoal cartoons on the wall and outline that into plaster. My point is that there is a process, and it’s really important to learn that process, because you take that knowledge with you and transpose it into other areas — into the world of digital, for instance. There’s a lot more involved in creating images than clicking buttons on a computer. It’s an art, a feeling, an emotion, and it comes from within. If you’re not exposed to that, you’re not going to think that way, and I’m afraid that’s how the craft is going to change — and, if we’re not careful, die.”